Friday, April 27, 2012

Article X: Of Free Will

Today in our 39 day march to Pentecost, I am including a reflection on Article X (Article X just reads so much cooler that Article 10):

 X. Of Free Will
The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a ,good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.

This one is pretty Reformed in its theology. Certainly this smacks of Calvinist notions "irresistible grace," which was a common theme of many in the Church of England during the Elizabethan age. By that, I mean the idea that only through God's grace can people begin to have faith and understanding of God. In other words, fallen man cannot turn himself to God. There is prevenient grace needed before we can even hope to do any good work that might be pleasing to God. This grace which comes only from God gives us the will to do good. And then we get what some theologians refer to as cooperating grace, which is a second helping of God's grace to allow us to cooperate with the "will for good" that God gives us. In short, God gives us to grace to do good works and also the grace to cooperate with this divine revelation which is contrary to our sinful nature. 

This article does not actually use the full bore Calvinist term "total depravity," but that is largely what is being finessed here. Total depravity is the doctrine that as a consequence of the Fall, every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin. As such, we are totally unable to choose to follow God or to choose to accept salvation as it is offered, except through the grace and specific revelation of God. 

This is largely over the issue of free will, which Philosophers have debated for centuries long before Christianity. In the Christian context, the question became, "Do we have the free will to follow God or, or is there irresistible grace in which we have no choice but to follow God?" Tied up in this is doctrines of election (a la St. Augustine), predestination (a la Calvin),even double predestination (Calvin's Theological Successors), or that it is completely up to the individual to choose to follow God or not (Arminianism). This stems all the way back to the Pelagian controversy. Pelagius taught (or at least people said that he taught, which is a different thing entirely) that humans were free from the taint of Adam's fall and as such could theoretically rise to God through their own efforts apart from grace. 

I, personally, have some issue with this Article's rather rigid monergism. To my mind, there is a distinction between God's irresistible grace and God's salvific grace. To say that we have no choice in the matter of salvation is wrong headed. That makes us nothing more than moral automatons, and therefore not responsible for our own actions. However, I do believe that it is only by God's grace that we are saved but I reject the notion of total depravity. 

I agree with the Catholic Church and the Council of Trent that actually, to my mind, took the middle way on this issue. We are not totally depraved but we are not totally free either because of sin. The Catholic Church disagrees with the Protestant doctrine of total depravity because the Catholic Church maintains man retained a free but wounded will after the Fall and views man's free will as deriving from being made in the likeness and image of God. We still have to rely on God's grace to exist and for our salvation in Christ, but not because we cannot possibly figure it out for ourselves. God's Grace properly gives us the clarity to correct the myopia that our sinful nature has created. God's grace is not turning something wretched and depraved into something that resembles God because we are made in the likeness and image of God to begin with. God's Grace through Jesus Christ corrects the will that has become corrupted but not totally lost; it does not kill the will only to recreate another species of will. 

Grace is essential, but we have to cooperate with it, lest be spiritual versions of a bacteria in a Petree dish responding to penicillin. 

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